Critical reactions to the current MoMA retrospective of Cindy Sherman have ranged from wildly enthusiastic to guardedly skeptical. Whatever your personal take may be, there’s no denying the artist’s prolific playfulness. Anyone who enjoyed dressing up as a child, or for Halloween costume parties, can relate to the thrill of being someone or something else, if just for a few hours. The initial appeal of Sherman’s work is this immediate identification.
On the surface, at least, for it doesn’t take long to note that as instantly appealing as her works are, with the exception of the grotesques and the more sexually explicit pictures, there’d a lot more going on in them than a childlike glee at all the makeup, costumes, and playacting.
Many of the works, most notably the Untitled Film Stills, reference the movie industry, and by extension popular culture. Publicity stills, as the show’s curator Eva Respini has pointed out, are snapshots rather than high art, discarded after they serve their function. Revitalizing this humble medium, Sherman captures female movie types, portraying ingénues, vixens, and vamps. A common reading of these stills is that Sherman is taking a critical stance on Hollywood female stereotypes. This is partly true, but a bit simplistic since many of the stills are genuinely haunting, and assert the power of the image even more than deconstruct it.
Sherman’s visual vocabulary for conveying emotional authenticity is rich and varied. There are the frequent sideway glances, the frozen gestures, the way she corners her body, making all the perspectival lines converge toward it, but, as if at the last moment, obscuring her face, turning it away from the viewer. We are aware that the motion and the spontaneity are minutely composed, but the tension between life and artifice, between being and playing, is so blurred in Sherman’s work that the knowledge of artifice doesn’t lessen our engagement with the story in the photograph. Which, ultimately, is what also makes movies magical.
One aspect of the images struck me on encountering them again, in the MoMA exhibition: Quite a few stills capture women in emotional distress. There’s the image of a young woman in a leopard-print shirt, an empty cocktail glass before her and the indispensible cigarette in hand, her mascara smeared with tears. She could be a heartbroken secretary from Mad Men, but she’s only a prelude to a much more cryptic figure that, alternatively, runs through blurry dark woods, hovers in murky corners, or descends into shadowy basements, as if in a Hitchcockian screenplay. This woman wears a white nightie and looks very much on the verge of an emotional breakdown, recalling Gena Rowlands in John Cassavetes’s A Woman Under the Influence. Mental illness and distress are evoked if not always literally then by the claustrophobic aura that heightens our perception of fragility, and of terror. And while Sherman never really references particular films, the allure of her images is such that we may all be tempted to believe these are films we ourselves have watched.
In the exhibition’s audio commentary, Sherman mentions how she came to wigs and makeup in an era when women were supposed to be jettisoning them, in a feminist gesture. And so, forbidden pleasure animates Sherman’s oeuvre, perhaps nowhere more visibly than in the stills, which palpitate with loneliness, but also suggest the male gaze, particularly with women who lie supine or glance at themselves in mirrors, are partly undressed, or strike suggestive poses. More than any other of Sherman’s notable images (and there are many in the MoMA show, from the centerfold series to the more recent high-society portraits), the film stills speak to the fact that a woman’s identity, her autonomy, is complicated by desire. One could argue that this applies to any desire, male or female, as Sherman’s more androgynous portraits confirm. Although she mostly features women, one senses looking at some images, such as her clowns, that Sherman could be anyone. This fluidity calls into question our readiness to assign genders or gender roles, when in reality they may sometimes be far from simple or certain.
Finally, there’s the importance of the masks themselves; on film, but also in life, we are what we make ourselves out to be. The mask isn’t arbitrary. Through her many guises, Sherman demands that we look at it not as a wanton distraction or whimsy, or solely as a social convention, but as essence, asking how each particular mask is constructed, and what function it serves. In an inversion of the common understanding of the term, Sherman’s masks expose rather than conceal.
MoMA’s Cindy Sherman exhibit runs through June 11.